Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc: The greatest (running) show on earth

UTMB week is one of the biggest, most formidable, awe-inspiring and hotly-anticipated events in the trail running calendar. But whether you’re a runner or not, it’s also one of the most astonishing events to enjoy in the Chamonix valley. From spectating high up in the mountains to participating in the week-long party in the valley, I’m sharing why this event was one of the highlights of our trip to the French Alps.

Picture this.

It’s late on a summer’s evening. Warm enough for shorts, but cool enough to break out a jumper for the first time all day. You’re standing in the main square of a picturesque alpine village, surrounded by a crowd of locals and tourists. There’s a band on stage playing the sort of classics you might expect at a good wedding, and most folks have a pint of the local brew in hand. It’s dark, but there’s pin-pricks of light all over the sky above. The square itself is lit with a jumble of Christmas lights, multi-coloured flashes from the stage, the soft lights of a cafe terrace and, in the tent to your side, the harsh white of a fluorescent bulb that lights a drinks station and crepe stand.

All of a sudden a cheer goes up, and everyone rushes to one side of the square. A small light, getting closer, has just appeared around a bend in the road. This is Pablo Villa Gonzalez, the eventual winner of the TDS, one of the most iconic races in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc week. He’s just over 110km into a 121km race that loops its way around the Mont Blanc massif. The crowd erupts into cheers and cries of support as he runs into the marquee squeezed between the stage and beer tent and out the other side, eating up the last few miles of this race.

The village of Les Houches, nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc is one of many host villages on the route of the six races that make up Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc week. Truly one of the most outstanding and demanding events on the international trail running calendar, UTMB week is a celebration of some of the best trail running and runners in the world. But it’s also one of the best spectacles you can enjoy in the Chamonix valley as a supporter.

In this post I’m sharing more about this incredible event, from the host locations to the races themselves. Having experienced the thrill of the event as a spectator on our trip to Chamonix this summer, I can’t help but recommend it as a must-see in this part of the Alps. Whether you’re a trail runner yourself, or just fancy getting into the spirit of a good French fête, there’s something for everyone.

How did we end up at UTMB?

As one of our Airbnb housemates asked us “But why would you come to Chamonix in UTMB week if you’re not running?”. She was taking part in the OCC race, and was rather confused by our eccentric British holiday.

It wasn’t exactly our plan for a summer getaway, more of a happy coincidence. Although not entirely coincidental.

We’re keen runners – although a million-times removed from the calibre of the extraordinary athletes we saw during our week in Chamonix. Or rather I am, Ben could probably give it a half-decent go. We call the rolling hills of southern England home, so there’s not much opportunity for mountain climbing on my usual weekend runs.

But it does mean that we knew all about UTMB – it’s got a steely reputation as one of the greatest trail running events in the world, and as fans of the sport we’d watched from afar online for many years. So when the stars collided and we realised that dates we could get away coincided with UTMB week and that it would still be on budget, we couldn’t resist. Flights and an Airbnb were booked in a flash, whilst Ben started the important task of tracking down the programme of events for the week.

Read more about our trip to Chamonix in Summer in the Chamonix valley: A week in Les Houches

What exactly is UTMB week?

The name ‘Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’ is actually used to refer to both a whole week of events that take place around the Mont Blanc massif at the end of August, and one single race.

UTMB week, for extra confusion, also goes by the name of Sommet Mondial du Trail. But in summary, it’s a collective name for the series of races but also associated events that take place at the same time. You’ll find everything from product expos to book signings, meet and greets to live podcast recordings happening during UTMB week – mostly in Chamonix. They give the whole event more of a festival atmosphere, and add a bit more colour to proceedings whilst the athletes are off high in the mountains.

When it comes to the races themselves, there’s six senior events as well as a junior one. No one is quite the same – there are different distances, routes, entry requirements, starting locations, dates and times to get your head around.

Here’s a beginner’s guide;

MCC: De Martigny-Combe a Chamonix

The shortest of the six senior races, the MCC might only be 40km in distance but the brutal 2,300m in accent makes it a challenging event even for experienced trail runners – and one where entry is hotly contested. Starting in Martigny-Combe, just over the Swiss border, runners start early in the morning and race back to the finishing line in Chamonix.

OCC: Orsieres – Champex – Chamonix

The OCC sees the distance step up to 56km and the start line move from the border to Orsieres. Packing in 3,460m of climbing, this race ups the stakes on two fronts, and takes in even more of the dramatic scenery to be found on the Franco-Swiss border.

CCC: Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix

Starting in Courmayeur, the CCC is a real treat for spectators across the Italian border. Heading first into Switzerland and then into France following the Grand Randonnee du Tour du Mont-Blanc walking trail, runners ultimately finish in Chamonix after 101km and more than 6,000m of ascent.

TDS: Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie

The second race in UTMB week to start in Courmayeur, TDS is traditionally a little longer at 121km and features even more climbing. Following smaller and more remote paths than the CCC, the TDS has a reputation for being a more adventurous route that takes in some real highlights of the Val d’Aosta and Chamonix valley. In 2019, the route was extended by more than 20km to offer a new and more challenging route.

PTL: La Petite Trotte a Leon

Just when you think you might be getting the hang of how the events of UTMB week work, the organisers surprise you with something completely different. PTL.

For starters, this race isn’t about individuals. You can enter in teams of 2 or 3, and must remain together throughout. It’s also the longest race and involves the greatest amount of ascent, covering around 300km in distance and 30,000m of climbing. But what makes this race really unique is that it’s self-guided. Entrants are given checkpoints that they must reach within a given time, but the route they take is their choice, adding more interest and competition to an already enthralling event.

It takes several days for teams to complete this race, often on different paths in the mountains. But keep an eye out for competitors when you’re out and about – they deserve your cheers and encouragement.

UTMB: The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

The trailblazer that kick-started UTMB week.

The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc first took place in 2003, and aside from adjustments for inclement weather, it’s remained largely unchanged since. Runners set off on a circular route of 171km from Chamonix that the very fastest will complete in just shy of 24 hours. Traversing French, Italian and Swiss paths of the Mont Blanc massif, this route packs in a stonking 10,000m plus of climbing. As the finale to the week’s events, there is an extra-special atmosphere at the start and along the route of UTMB that makes it unmissable.

Spectating at the start/finish line in Chamonix

If you’ve managed to plough through my wrap-up of the races taking place in UTMB week, you might have realised something significant. Chamonix is pretty busy all week long.

And honestly, this is the joy of UTMB week.

Whatever the time of day, whatever day of the week, the chances are that there is something taking place and something worth seeing.

At the start and finish line

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this is the true epicentre of activity in Chamonix. It’s even more exciting in the hours leading up to the start of a race and when front-runners are approaching the finishing line. We watched some of the build up towards the start of UTMB in the square and there was a palpable sense of expectation and growing excitement.

It is worth noting that it can get incredibly busy with runners as the start time approaches – and it’s only fair to let them have the space. If you want a good spectator position when there’s a race kicking off, head there an hour or more before.

Finishing is a bit of a different game, as runners tend to spread out during the course of an event. It’s unlikely you’ll see packs of runners coming through like you would at a major marathon. But although runners often approach the finish alone, each one is given a hero’s welcome. Whenever you’re in Chamonix, it’s worth popping over to this space to see if there are any runners expected in – and if there are, join the crowd to cheer them in. The atmosphere’s electric, whatever the time of day.

The UTMB expo and more

Given how many races were taking place, I was astonished to see just how much else was going on in town. If you’re a keen runner, there’s plenty to get involved in that’s not racing. Check out the huge UTMB expo that takes place early in the week (around ten minutes walk from the start line). It’s packed with stands for the biggest brands and races in the trail running world. There’s things to see and do, book-signings and meet and greet sessions with brand ambassadors – and more trail shoes to shop than I’ve ever seen in my life. I could have done some serious shopping here.

You’ll also find smaller events hosted by brands, publications and more. Strava host a number of events including ‘fun’ runs before more coffee (although this does depend on your definition of how many hundred metres of climbing are acceptable in a fun run). We also spotted ads for podcast recordings, talks and more – but be sure to research and book in advance as places are limited and fill up well in advance.

Spectating at host villages

There’s a great atmosphere in Chamonix throughout UTMB week.

But there’s even more of a festive feeling in the host villages that the races wind their way through. Here it’s more than a trail race. It’s a community event and celebration as well as a chance to welcome a major sporting event to a little slice of the alpine countryside.

We stayed in Les Houches, 4 miles outside of Chamonix and host to a checkpoint for the TDS and an aid station (food and drink station) for the UTMB. It was, by chance, the most incredible place to watch both races.

Watching the TDS in Les Houches

Watching the TDS felt most special. As I described earlier, the first runners came through the village around 10pm at night – with many more coming through as the night drew on and the next day dawned. But it didn’t matter that it was late, the entire village had come out to celebrate. Whether you were really there for the running or not, it was an excuse to party, in the very best traditions of a French fête .

People spilled from the terrace of the main square’s cafe into the street. A marquee full of volunteers from the local junior ski club was doing roaring trade in beverages, burgers and crepes. A band was in full swing on a stage that had magically appeared on the far side of the square, and every now and then the crowd parted as another barrel rolled into the beer tent from the microbrewery up the road.

At the heart of everything was the checkpoint itself, a marquee with a fluorescent glow packed with drinks and snacks for the runners – and rather mysteriously, much of the cast of Asterix the Gaul. Obelix seemed to be presiding over the whole affair.

As each of the front runners, in turn, arrived in the village they were met with roars of support. And whilst the crowd slowly slipped away as the evening drew on, the dedicated volunteers remained there throughout the night and regrouped come morning. Heading down to the boulangerie early next day, there were more yet runners and Obelix had been home to change. The Mum’s from the ski club were pouring coffees in place of beers, and there was still an enjoyable number of people around the checkpoint offering their support and enthusiasm.

UTMB week is a big deal for small communities. And whether you’re a fan of trail racing or not, it’s hard not to want to be involved in events like this. Les Houches proved to us that it knew how to put on a show, and shared its warmth with the runners and visitors alike.

First runners in the TDS racce during UTMB week 2019 arriving at the checkpoint in Les Houches

UTMB: The grand finale of the week

Just two days later, we were back in Les Houches.

We’d initially planned to watch the start of the UTMB in Chamonix. But after heading into town (and having a lot of fun soaking up the pre-race atmosphere) we made a tactical decision. It gets very busy in Chamonix and we decided that heading down the valley to Les Houches would let us get closer to the action.

This involved a spontaneous four mile run in a surprise rain storm. I wouldn’t recommend adding this bit to your itinerary. As we arrived in Les Houches though, we knew we’d made a good decision. It was late afternoon, and although some of the evening entertainments we’d experienced earlier in the week had given way to a drinks station for athletes, there was no less of a buzz than for TDS. If anything, as the rain finally paused and the arrival of the first runners approached, the crowd swelled to even greater numbers than before.

Right on schedule, the first runners arrived – announced by excited shouts from spectators further down the road. All of a sudden, some of the biggest names in trail running were rushing by. Twenty minutes of intense cheering later (after a few minutes you’ll find yourself fully proficient in shouting “Allez, allez!”, “Bravo” and “Bon chance!” – irrespective of whether you have any idea what any of these phrases mean) and the runners had all passed through, and were now ascending their first climb to Col de Voza.

Front runners in the UTMB 2019 reach Les Houches

Spectating out on the course

Being a spectator in Chamonix and Les Houches was something we’d planned to do.

Spectating out on the course wasn’t something we’d thought about doing before we arrived. But after finding ourselves doing so, more through luck than judgement, I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Chamonix during UTMB week.

Col de Tricot checkpoint on the TDS

If you want to see a different side to the races, head up to one of the checkpoints on the course. These spots are where runners check-in with volunteers and log their progress. It’s a fascinating insight into the way the race is organised, and to experience the realities of taking part in the race.

We headed up to Col de Tricot on the second day of the TDS, following part of the race route in reverse. Runners periodically made their way along the narrow trails, with everyone somehow managing to make way for one another. An optimistic “Bravo!” or “not far to the checkpoint” became our usual cry as we let them past. Reaching the Col, we were able to watch runners checking and cheer on those still making the steep ascent up the hairpin path from the Refuge du Miage.

Runners in UTMB week 2019 climbing from Refuge de Miage to Col de Tricot
Runners at the Col de Tricot checkpoint during UTMB week 2019

The final few miles from La Flégère

Come Saturday afternoon, the majority of the week’s action was over. UTMB was underway somewhere out in the wilds of the Mont Blanc massif, and down in Chamonix things were settling down. We were up exploring Les Grands Balcons Sud high above the town when we started to realise than we were sharing the path with many more folks than we had been some hours before. These guys weren’t just here for an afternoon walking – they were here to watch a race. By the time we were within a short walk of the La Flégère lift, Pau Capell, the eventual winner of UTMB, had appeared on the horizon.

Almost like magic, a crowd suddenly coalesced along the path leading to the lift station. A seemingly quiet mountainside had conjured up a surprising number of spectators – and we were amongst them, shouting cheers of encouragement along with the best of them.

As Pau made his way up the rocky path, the very last climb on the race route, he received a hero’s welcome. He had a safe gap to the next runner and just needed to make it back down into the valley from here. The crowd sent him flying on his way and then, in a breathe, dissipated amongst the rocks and scrubs of the rugged landscape.

In conclusion

If you’re thinking of heading to the Chamonix valley during the summer, I cannot recommend visiting in UTMB week enough.

Whether you’re a runner or not, or have even ever thought about spectating at an event like this, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

From the party atmosphere in host villages to the special events in Chamonix, there’s plenty to see and take part in that you won’t have the chance to at any other time. You don’t even need to put your trainers on.

And if you’re out and about exploring the mountains, go out of your way to see a race taking place. Be blown away by the determination, strength and speed of the athletes taking.

Be inspired. Get involved. Have fun.

There’s something at UTMB week for everyone.

Want to know more about UTMB week? Check out utmbmontblanc.com for much, much more about this incredible event.

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Spectacting at UTMB week: The greatest running show on earth
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Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
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